Rotterdam

Dominika Ksel, Nana Adusei-Poku, Christa Bell, and Jasmine Murrell, Shores of the Abyss, 2015, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck-Schattenkerk. From “HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?”

Dominika Ksel, Nana Adusei-Poku, Christa Bell, and Jasmine Murrell, Shores of the Abyss, 2015, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck-Schattenkerk. From “HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?”

HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?

Kunstinstituut Melly

Dominika Ksel, Nana Adusei-Poku, Christa Bell, and Jasmine Murrell, Shores of the Abyss, 2015, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck-Schattenkerk. From “HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?”

HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?—or the Yams for short—is an international collective consisting of more than forty musicians, visual artists, poets, actors, and writers. Their constellation is the coming together of race-conscious, queer, feminist, and critically discursive producers in order to reveal a nonnormative creative and intellectual alternative that might actually influence what they see as the limited and prejudiced construct of contemporary art. Although they have been working together in various forms for twenty years, their formal collaboration was instigated a year ago when they were invited as a collective to finish their film Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014, for the Whitney Biennial. Their participation in the Biennial ended contentiously with their withdrawal as a protest against the institution’s politics and unwillingness to engage in a critical dialogue regarding Donelle Woolford’s participation in the show—Woolford being a fictional artist invented by Joe Scanlan. For the Yams, the presentation of an imaginary young black female artist as the creation of an older white male artist was “a troubling model of the black body and of conceptual rape.”

Now the Yams have turned up in Rotterdam, where some of them spent two months connecting with the harbor city and producing new work. The result was the exhibition “No Humans Involved,” which is a reference to a 1992 essay of the same name by feminist philosopher Sylvia Wynter. In the text, she confronts the reader with dominant society’s historically dehumanizing treatment of black bodies—with what it means to be human in a world that continuously contests certain people’s humanity.

Referring to current events but with a nod back to Afrofuturism and womanism, the exhibition was a voyage into a certain kind of otherness, or more specifically, a marked exploration of the potential of what the catalogue called an “unencumbered aesthetics of Blackness.” With the windows blacked out and the walls and floor painted black, the space felt like a cosmic vessel shrouded in dimmed concentrations of light. Eight multimedia installations were dispersed throughout the space, combining to create a multiplicity of sound, image, and material without a single author, yet uniformly addressing the production of difference that comes from what the Yams call intra-action. This is a process whereby the single being becomes many beings at once—and therefore speaks with many voices—through an ongoing reconfiguration of collaborations.

A good example of this intra-action is Jasmine Murrell’s Immortal Uterus (all works cited 2015), which lists more than twenty people as assistants in the production of the work, a massive hanging sculpture made of unraveled VHS tape. The theatrical blue light enveloping the space and glistening on the synthetic surface of this outdated medium made for a convincing experience of transient relevance. On the opposite side of the gallery stood an equally imposing installation: Shores of the Abyss, consisting of seven coffin-like boxes lying unceremoniously on what seemed to be an industrial-gravel beach, each box partly open, inviting the visitor to approach and hear its ominous bass-driven sound track. Authorship of this piece was credited to Dominika Ksel, Christa Bell, and Murrell, as well as to the exhibition’s curator, Nana Adusei-Poku. Also present were works made by individual artists, among them Dachi Cole’s Aquarelles in Motion, six tablet computers displaying a psychedelic loop of rapidly moving forms veiling and unveiling one another—performing the visual language of a science-fiction world, perhaps.

From all these pieces emerged what is most crucial to the Yams’ work: that it involves an almost corporeal and sensorial experience through the cultural and political flesh of race and gender. The profusion of their voices on these issues reverberates within their collaborative process as well as their collective stance toward the art world and beyond. From this discordant resonance, the Yams suggest, difference will materialize.

Huib Haye van der Werf